The April 19 announcement by OneWeb Satellites that it will build 890 satellites at a new facility just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center gave OneWeb officials the opportunity to describe the their planned revolution in satellite manufacturing and Florida officials another venue to promote space in the Sunshine State.
The space business in Florida is rising just as certainly as the tides around Kennedy.
For OneWeb, here are the raw numbers: once the facility is at full throttle, 250 OneWeb technicians and their robot colleagues will be completing a OneWeb satellite every eight hours — 15 per week at peak production — to meet the company’s aggressive deployment schedule.
Production starts in 2017. The first launch, of 10 validation satellites under construction in France by OneWeb Satellites co-owner Airbus Defence and Space, will be launched in late 2017 or early 2018.
Each satellite, equipped with all-electric propulsion, will weigh about 150 kilograms — half of it payload. Generating more than 50 watts of power, each will have a throughput of up to 10 gigabits per second to provide Internet to regions that don’t have broadband access.
Most will be launched, in batches of 32, aboard Russian Soyuz rockets operated by Europe’s Arianespace consortium. They will operate at an altitude of 1,100 kilometers.
For OneWeb Satellites Chief Executive Brian Holz, the OneWeb constellation should be viewed as the Exploration Park, Florida facility’s anchor customer, not its sole reason for being.
“We’ve already had interest from several government customers about our facility,” Holz said. “We think we should be able to attract new business starting in 2017. Basically, once we receive an order we could deliver it within months.”
Many obstacles remain for OneWeb LLC, based in Britain’s Channel Islands. For starters, the satellite production team still needs to prove it can build the satellites for $500,000 or less each.
“My first reaction was: Wow, hundreds of satellites … at around $500,000,” Airbus Group Chief Executive Tom Enders said in a company webcast distributed April 19. Like other major satellite builders, Airbus spacecraft typically take two years to build and cost $100 million or more.
The comparison is not entirely fair. Most big telecommunications satellites operate in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator and last 15-18 years. A big high-throughput Internet satellite today generates in excess of 100 gigabits of data per second.
But Enders’ point — that OneWeb is the first attempt to use aircraft-style mass production techniques to drive down satellites costs and accelerate production rhythm — is valid. Holz said one of the reasons Airbus was selected over the competition was its history of building commercial aircraft on what — for the space industry — constitutes large series. Enders said Airbus managers with commercial aircraft backgrounds have been tasked to the OneWeb team.
OneWeb and Airbus have signed the contractual documents needed for their OneWeb Satellites joint venture, and OneWeb Satellites subsequently contracted with OneWeb LLC to build the constellation, Holz said.
In addition to Airbus, the satellite contractor team is unknown. Holz said the company will have 30 key suppliers, of which some 25 are already working on their components – engineering test models, for example — even if formal contracts have not been signed.
But they made sufficiently binding price proposals to enable OneWeb Satellites to sign its contract for the constellation, Holz said.
Perhaps the most important component in the network, the user terminal, has yet to be unveiled. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said the company has “four or five” terminal suppliers it is working with and that the designs are promising. Wyler knows that terminal cost, form factor, user friendliness and purchase cost will be make-or-break issues for OneWeb.
The Florida Department of Transportation has approved a $17.5 million grant to help OneWeb finance its 100,000-square-foot production facility, which OneWeb says ultimately will cost up to $85 million.
But both Wyler and Holz said Exploration Park’s appeal lay not in the state’s financial aid. Instead, like any new home buyer, OneWeb first checked out the neighbors.
“The amount of technical capability there is just tremendous,” Wyler said. “You have Embraer aircraft, Rockwell Collins, Harris, Thales and many others — and the Kennedy Space Center. Blue Origin will be right next door to us. These are tens of thousands of highly skilled engineers. And the cost of living is reasonable.”
Holz added the nearby airstrip, not usually a major concern for satellite builders, is a big plus for OneWeb. “We’ll be shipping roughly 30-60 satellites a month integrated onto their dispenser, and loaded onto a 747 cargo or an Antonov” aircraft, Holz said.
And don’t forget the OneWeb gateways, the ground network that will manage the constellation, which apparently will be partly integrated at the satellite production plant. “We’ll have 60-70 gateway sites distributed around the world, each with 3-15 antennas. We want all these components first to come here.”
Addressing Space Florida directly, Holz voiced one complaint: The area was in dire need of a doughnut shop, because space technicians like doughnuts.
Kennedy Space Center Director Robert D. Cabana said OneWeb’s arrival was a victory for a strategy that began with the U.S. space shuttle’s retirement and confronted Florida with a difficult set of issues.
The response, he said: full speed ahead. Exploration Park was inaugurated six years ago with the blessing of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Florida government authorities.
Six years later, Cabana could address the OneWeb ceremony and — perhaps inevitably as a former shuttle astronaut — point to the booming commercial and government astronaut program.
Once a one-trick pony — the Apollo program, then the space shuttle, both single-point failures from a regional commercial development point of view — the Florida Space Coast is now home to four development programs designed to fly astronauts.
NASA’s Space Launch System and its Orion crew transport vehicle is perhaps the biggest. Alongside it are three private-sector programs: SpaceX’s crew-carrying Dragon and Boeing’s CST capsules, both using NASA funding; and Blue Origin’s ambitious plans for astronaut transport.
Like a mall anchored by a popular department store, these companies’ presence is luring others offering suborbital flights for paying customers, Cabana said.
His comments were echoed by Frank DiBello, chief executive of Space Florida, which arranged the state financial support for OneWeb; and Lynda Weatherman, director of the Economic Development Commission of the Florida Space Coast.
Weatherman said Florida officials, both government and private, created an environment that is now attracting so many companies in a methodical way that it should serve as a textbook for other regions.
Seeing the OneWeb ceremony audience in lawn chairs in the sun being bathed in Florida boosterism, it was easy to forget that part of the charm of the space sector is that, wherever it goes, it carries with it a risk of failure that would be intolerable for many businesses.
So too with OneWeb, which remains a “space startup,” two words that, when put together, multiply risk exposure just as they multiply excitement.
Take the financial issue (please!). OneWeb raised $500 million in June 2015, mainly from its industrial partners — Airbus, Qualcomm, Hughes Network Systems — in addition to established satellite fleet operator Intelsat and large Indian and Mexican cellular network operators.
The next round may not be so easy. Wyler has always projected confidence about OneWeb’s ability to raise up to $3 billion for the system. “Money is the least of our worries,” he’s said repeatedly. During the April 19 briefing with reporters, he was coy about the size and schedule of a B-round financial raise. In the past he has said it would happen in 2016.
How much OneWeb can reasonably expect from either the French export-credit agency, Coface, or its U.S. counterpart, the Export-Import Bank, is a question mark. Ex-Im is still out of service for large projects as the U.S. Congress has declined to confirm the new board member necessary for underwriting large commitments.
As for Coface, well, OneWeb may prefer that the French agency not view the webcast of the April 19 ceremony, whose main message was OneWeb loves Florida.
Even at a time when investment capital is coursing through Silicon Valley and commercial-bank interest rates remain low, export-credit-agency financing is tough to beat.
Will it be enough for Coface — for the French government — that Airbus’s Toulouse, France, plant is designing the OneWeb constellation and building the first 10 satellites? Will French content in the final design — Airbus plus whatever other French contractors are selected for components — be sufficiently large for Coface to guarantee OneWeb bank loans?
Coface is already backing three other satellite constellations: the Iridium and Globalstar mobile communications systems and the O3b Networks constellation of Ka-band broadband satellites, which Wyler founded.
As was the case with O3b, OneWeb’s design has been dissed and dismissed by more satellite industry people than can be counted. But O3b, now with fleet operator SES of Luxembourg as the dominant shareholder, has 12 satellites in orbit and a business plan that SES has judged sufficiently solid to order eight more satellites.
OneWeb secured the backing and technical muscle of Airbus, which now has a personal stake in OneWeb’s success and the $500,000 satellite. Intelsat likes OneWeb enough to have made a modest investment in it to assure compatibility with Intelsat’s geostationary-orbit constellation.
Gogo Inc., the in-flight connectivity company now moving big into satellite bandwidth purchases, says OneWeb can add the polar regions to geostationary satellites’ coverage of the rest of the world.
Three-to-one says Holz gets his doughnut shop by June 2017.